This post began as a response to Julia Thornton’s brief comment on a previous post in which I outed myself as a fan of the philosopher Hegel, directing me to a site where Hegelians roamed free. It’s an interesting thing what we make of what we learn at uni – and to some extent maintain beyond it with a bit of reading. Outside one’s field, one can’t take too deep an interest in a particular area – or it’s practically very hard. So what does one take into life outside the field one might follow? An ossified set of propositions from some old codger. Well perhaps. For me anyway, I can say that my study of Hegel helped shape a few important things about my intellectual orientation to things.
I doubt it really changed me (for good or ill, these things are largely temperamental I suspect) but it gave me a bit of a vocabulary to express some things. And as I said in the comment to Julia, “the thing is, I’m not a Hegelian. I’m not an anything much.”
I think Hegel is the most amazing, eye-opening philosopher I’ve ever come across, and I think of his ideas a lot, but I don’t think they create a program for anything much – or at least not for me. My own idea of philosophy is that it’s a kind of ‘rhetoric of epistemology’. If, as is likely that means nothing to you I’ll try to explain – though who knows how I’ll go, it’s quite tricky to explain.
Since we don’t have a clue what makes up the world, or how we should think, the thing I love about Hegel is that he reinvents the world in a fabulously rich way. I divide philosophy and those who discuss philosophy into two camps. The first lot fancy themselves as devilishly commonsensical and they’re forever lecturing us that if only we could jolly well sort ourselves out, then we could cure the world of all known diseases march down the road to truth, principally by eliminating error.
Logical Positivism was in this tradition. And, in reinventing ‘Hume’s fork’ – in saying that something was either falsifiable or meaningless metaphysics – they didn’t quite account for the fact that this linchpin of their system, their criterion of meaningfulness itself was unfalsifiable and therefore (presumably) meaningless. To me Logical Positivism is the philosophical equivalent of the Titanic – the unsinkable ship, sinking on its maiden voyage. Richard Dawkins – purveyor du jour of schoolboy atheism – is the amateur philosopher in this mould, unaware of his own capacious ignorance of the very topic on which he writes whole books. I call this philosophy as ‘metaphysics by default’. The practitioners do metaphysics but are unaware of the fact, thinking it’s commonsense. In this sense they are deliciously unphilosophical, but blissfully unaware of it as they troop on through the undergrowth, pith helmets firmly strapped to their chins.
In this world of thought, categories like ‘matter’ or (though this is a bit out of fashion) ‘mind’ lurk either explicitly acknowledged or as implicitly fundamental categories on which thought gets built. But no-one has got the foggiest clue what ‘matter’ or ‘mind’ really are. (Paradoxically they’ve got a pretty good idea of what ‘mind’ is because they experience it from the inside, but they can’t escape the subjectivity of that experience. As for matter, well, even as a scientific endeavour, the more we look into it the more its intelligibility recedes from us. It gets curiouser and curiouser.)
My own personal conclusion from this is, as I’ve suggested on this blog before, is that if we go looking for foundations for our thought, we end up in fictions. It’s best we acknowledge that and since they’re fictive, we get the opportunity to make up fertile fictions – fictions which will help us think in a fruitful way rather than just lead us to rehearse what seems obvious to our senses (but which is in fact the quite arbitrary artefact of our intuitions as beings which inhabit a largely ‘Newtoninan’ world between galactic and atomic scales.)
Hegel of course is consciously anti-foundational. And he does a phenomenal job of that (oops on a re-read I just realised that’s a pun – which I’ll stick with). Picking up The Phenomenology of Spirit and starting at the Prologue is a giddying experience. It explains that it’s not really a prologue, that it can’t really set out its argument in advance, that a later argument disagreeing with an earlier argument does not refute it, any more than the flower refutes the bud from which it has grown.
But, though it does some violence to his language and thought, you could put it differently so as to juxtapose what I’ve called ‘metaphysics by default’ with Hegel’s approach – which I’d call ‘metaphysics by design’. You’d say that Hegel’s ‘foundation’ is that the world is the emanation of ‘spirit’, which of course his philosophy is then consumed in dramatising.
What is ‘spirit’? Well, who knows? But then remember, no-one escapes from the ridiculousness of opening their mouth. Certainly not materialists. We have no idea what ‘matter’ is, nor ‘mind’ except in a hopelessly impossible to communicate subjectivity. And it turns out that, in Hegel’s hands, his fictions acquire a coherence and a power as one comes to understand how he explicates it. It really does give you new eyes with which to see the world. And so one’s understanding of one’s human situation is built up from a fertile fiction, rather than deduced from a lifeless and obvious fact, which, on a little serious thought turns out to be made up – that we and the universe of which we are a part are made of ‘matter’ – whatever that is. Oh – and space and extension – whatever they are.
But to be an Hegelian one would presumably buy into Hegel’s schema in some committed way – one would accept some Hegelian dogma. I’m afraid that while I think of Hegel’s system as the most brilliant piece of fictive foundations or protocols for epistemology and ontology I’ve encountered, that’s all it is. A particular and incredibly fertile endeavour by one of the great philosophers of all time.
My sympathy for religion, which I suspect mystifies and irritates a few Troppodillians, is made of the same stuff. Religion is built on fictive foundations which are a human construct (fictive foundations on which many modern, and some less modern believers understand to be a human construct). And yet, as with Hegel’s system, and unlike more mundane ‘materialist’ understandings of the universe, the strangeness of the fictive foundations of religion are an invitation to continual renewal in helping us interpret our changing experience in the world.